This one simple thing can change lives and strengthen the fabric of our community

In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf …

Kyla Hyson smiles, opens a book and reads.

One Sunday morning, the warm sun came up and pop! Out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar …

Three-year-old Jaxson Vandegrift stops wiggling and listens. His eyes focus on the vivid greens, reds and yellows in Eric Carle’s classic picture book. Jaxson watches Hyson point to words and say them out loud.

On Monday he ate one apple …

The scene, repeated on laps and in classrooms across generations, is at once common and extraordinary. Hyson, a parent educator for Early Head Start, sees Jaxson and his mom, Kayla Chavez, once a week in their home and makes reading part of every visit.

June Rempel, principal of the Maize Early Childhood Center, says talking and reading to a child is the most important thing anyone can do.

“We say, ‘Talk to me, read to me, make my brain grow,’ and it’s true. … That simple little thing can be life changing,” Rempel said.

Learning to read can change lives, strengthen families and improve communities. But a look at early childhood literacy in Wichita shows disturbing trends.

Standard reading measures show declines in the reading ability of Wichita’s children, and experts say funding hasn’t kept pace with the need for help. They say it will take a social and cultural revolution – combined with committed leadership and a focus on families – to change a trajectory that is charted well before students enter kindergarten.

Research shows that students who can’t read on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school by age 19 than a child who reads proficiently. If the child also lives in poverty, he is 13 times less likely to graduate on time. Meanwhile, high school dropouts are 63 times more likely than college graduates to be incarcerated.

Unfortunately, the state of literacy in the Wichita area is bleaker than the average picture book.

Nearly a third of Kansas fourth-graders can’t read at a basic level, according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress. When you look at Wichita students, the news gets worse: Only about one in four Wichita third-graders is on track to be ready for college-level work in reading, according to the most recent Kansas assessment tests.

Just in the past year, the number of third-graders who scored at Level 1 on the state test – below grade level – increased more than 19 percent. Percentages were significantly higher among black and Hispanic students, those with disabilities and those still learning English.

“When you see the data, everybody kind of looks at each other and says, ‘We need to figure this out,’” said Teresa Rupp, executive director of Child Start, which provides early childhood services, including Head Start and Early Head Start.

“We need to create a community conversation about reading, because that’s what’s going to make a difference to kids,” Rupp said.

What’s the cost?

More than 36 million adults in the United States can’t read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Low literacy costs communities in a big way – and it shows up the first day of school.

Donna Simpson, principal at Harry Street Elementary in Wichita, says children who aren’t exposed to books before kindergarten often don’t recognize letters or know that letters make words. Some hold books upside down or backward. They don’t know basic colors, shapes or numbers.

“That’s a lot of ground to make up,” Simpson said. “But we take them where they are and go from there.”

Researchers estimate that low literacy costs the nation about $225 billion a year in crime, lowered workforce productivity and loss of tax revenue associated with unemployment. It accounts for another $232 billion a year in health care costs, because people with low reading skills tend to have poorer health.

In 2014, when the local United Way looked for ways to help high-poverty neighborhoods around Wichita’s West High School, it decided to focus on young children and families. The organization launched a public Be There campaign to combat chronic absenteeism and the Read to Succeed initiative, which focuses on third-grade reading.

“If ever we’re going to break the welfare cycle, it’s going to be through education,” said Patrick Hanrahan, United Way’s president and chief executive officer.

“If we can help a child learn to read, a lot of good things happen,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that if you’re concerned about the next generation of employees and citizens, it’s critical that everyone get behind it.”

Prisca Barnes, founder of Storytime Village, a Wichita-based nonprofit organization, said too many families struggle to buy food, clothing and shoes for their children. Books – and the time to sit down and read them – aren’t a top priority.

During a recent event at a Wichita park, where Barnes’ group gave away donated books, a mom told Barnes she would love to read with her children. But she works two jobs – one of them a night shift – and barely has time to make meals.

“That’s where the village comes in,” said Barnes, whose group pairs struggling students with high school mentors. “We tell them, ‘The best you can do is the best you can do. Ask them about their day. Have a conversation. Ask for help if you need it.’

“It can feel overwhelming,” she said. “But my dad used to say, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ The answer is one bite at a time.”

Better parenting

Many business leaders know we need to get serious about literacy, Hanrahan says. So do educators, doctors, politicians and social workers.

But reading starts well before third grade or even kindergarten, so changing the landscape when it comes to literacy may require nothing short of a cultural revolution.

Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, says gaps based on socioeconomic status and race are stark by the time a child turns 2. That’s not surprising, given that during the first three years of life, a child’s brain grows to more than 80 percent of its adult size.

New research into brain development also shows a troubling trend: Kids who grow up with higher levels of trauma in their lives have weaker neural connections in parts of the brain that affect awareness, judgment and emotional processing. On MRI scans, scientists found diminished brain tissue in the temporal lobe, which steers language, visual and auditory processing, as well as parts of the hippocampus, which guides memory.

Wichita school district officials say a rise in discipline problems, particularly among elementary school students, reflects an increase in the number of children from homes of poverty, substance abuse, violence, hunger or neglect. About three-fourths of Wichita students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

“It’s not just heredity and genetics,” Ferguson said. “It became clear to me that efforts need to start at birth. … They need to focus on improving a child’s environment, and that means helping parents be better parents.”

In 2011, Ferguson and a team of experts from across the country took what they knew about child development and brain science and boiled it down to five parenting principles, dubbed the Boston Basics:

1. Maximize love, manage stress.

2. Talk, sing, and point.

3. Count, group, and compare.

4. Explore through movement and play.

5. Read and discuss stories.

Financed by government agencies, businesses and nonprofit groups, Ferguson’s team produced public service announcements in several languages focused on each of the basics. They reached out to doctors, child care workers, church leaders, librarians and barbers. They printed handouts for parents and caregivers, a sort of instruction book for giving your baby the best possible start.

The idea, Ferguson says, is to make evidence-based parenting practices – talking, counting, singing, reading, showing affection – as commonplace as car seats and doctor checkups.

“There is a sense of collective responsibility that you want to try to encourage,” he said. “It’s more than literacy or some special program. … It’s a matter of making life the program.”

Focus vs. funding

In recent years, Kansas education officials have tightened their focus on early learners. The Kansas Can vision for education, announced with fanfare by Education Commissioner Randy Watson in 2015, named kindergarten readiness as one of five key priorities.

This year, the State Board of Education approved a plan to collect more data on incoming kindergartners, a screening tool that will assess youngsters’ abilities in the areas of communication, problem solving, social skills and more. That is expected to begin next year.

This fall, Wichita elementary schools began using a screening tool from FastBridge Learning. It showed that about a third of kindergartners are at high risk for academic or social-emotional deficiencies, said Shannon Benoit, the district’s director of early childhood programs.

At the same time, however, federal and state funding for preschool and parent education programs has stalled.

Early Head Start, a federally funded child care and education program for children under 3, serves about 6 percent of eligible children in Sedgwick County. Parents as Teachers, which provides parenting instruction and early detection of developmental delays, has only two full-time parent educators serving 56 families in Wichita, the state’s largest district.

Full-day kindergarten, long proven to help increase academic achievement, received full funding in Kansas for the first time this year.

Rupp, the executive director of Child Start, has been an outspoken advocate for child care and early childhood programs for decades. She said she’s encouraged by the current conversation about literacy and cautiously optimistic.

“It does seem to me that people kind of get it and talk about it more than they used to. People know it’s important,” she said. “But knowing and knowing what to do about it are two different things.”

Ferguson, the Harvard researcher, has offered his Boston Basics program to other communities and several, including Chattanooga, Tenn., and Sao Paulo, Brazil, have reworked and adopted it for themselves.

“There’s no choice but to try to make the things happen that we know need to happen,” he said. “Because it’s too scary to think about what will happen if we don’t.”

This content was created with support from Impact Literacy, a strategic initiative of the Wichita Community Foundation.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

About Read ICT

Read ICT is an occasional series of stories focusing on literacy. It is made possible in part by a grant from the Wichita Community Foundation’s Impact Literacy initiative.

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